Military hopes to create 'Iron Man suit'

No contracts have been signed and the Pentagon has no cost estimate, but there's enthusiasm for the project.

TRIBUNE WASHINGTON BUREAUNovember 2, 2013 

WASHINGTON - Army Capt. Brian Dowling was leading his Special Forces team through a steep mountain pass in eastern Afghanistan when insurgents ambushed his patrol, leaving two of his soldiers pinned down with life-threatening wounds.

After a furious firefight, the two men were rescued, but that episode in 2006 changed Dowling's life.

Now employed by a small defense company, he is part of a crash effort by U.S. Special Operations Command to produce a radically new protective suit for elite soldiers to wear into battle - one with bionic limbs, head-to-toe armor, a built-in power supply and live data feeds projected on a see-through display inside the helmet.

They call it - what else? - the "Iron Man suit."

"We're taking the Iron Man concept and bringing it closer to reality," said Dowling, referring to Marvel Comics character Tony Stark, an industrialist and master engineer who builds a rocket-powered exoskeleton, turning himself into a superhero.

The Special Operations Command began soliciting ideas for the suit this year from industry, academia and government labs, and has held two conferences at which potential bidders, including Dowling's company, Revision Military, demonstrated their products.

Military officials say they are trying to produce a working prototype within a year.

The metal suit the Pentagon wants would be all but impervious to bullets and shrapnel, and be able to continuously download and display live video feeds from overhead drones. Relying on tiny motors, the exoskeleton would enable a soldier to run and jump without strain while carrying 100 or more pounds.

It would, at least in theory, be able to stanch minor wounds with inflatable tourniquets - in the unlikely event the armor is breached. It also would carry a built-in oxygen supply in case of poison gas, a cooling system to keep soldiers comfortable, and sensors to transmit the wearer's vital signs back to headquarters.

"They want an Iron Man-like suit; they've been quite open about that," said Adarsh Ayyar, an engineer at BAE Systems, a defense contractor. "You won't get all of it. It's not going to fly. But I think it's doable."

HIGH-TECH DREAMING?

Some experts question whether the project represents a misunderstanding of the lessons of the last dozen years of war, when U.S. soldiers, despite being equipped with technology and weaponry far beyond anything their enemies possessed, were dueled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When the U.S. military entered the global war on terror, it was infatuated with technology and believed that it wins wars," said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who has been critical of recent wars. "The experience in Iraq and Afghanistan ought to have destroyed any such expectation, but this (project) suggests it is still true."

Armored suits, of course, go back to ancient times. The updated model might sound outlandish, but with its nearly bottomless budgets, the Pentagon has a history of developing cutting-edge technology - drones, stealth aircraft, precision-guided missiles and global positioning satellites, to name a few - that transformed the world.

An animated video produced this year by the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command shows a soldier fully encased in heavy armor running down a narrow alley in a mud-walled village that could be Iraq or Afghanistan. Behind a huge wooden door unseen bad guys await, only the barrels of their four AK-47s visible.

Suddenly the soldier smashes through the door and stands menacingly as dozens of rounds bounce harmlessly off his suit.

The screen fades to black. "To be continued … "

ABOUT THE FUTURE

Describing the suit at a conference of engineers and defense executives in Tampa, Fla., in August, Adm. William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and head of the Special Operations Command, urged them to think about a special operations soldier preparing to assault a house.

"He has to open that door not knowing what's on the other side," McRaven said. "He's got to be able to shoot, move and communicate. He's got to be able to survive in that environment. … If we invest in the suit, it will reduce the operation's risks and therefore the operation's costs."

How much of this is Hollywood and how much is truly possible is uncertain, designers acknowledge. There is no prototype, only a smorgasbord of ideas and off-the-shelf components that need to be combined.

"I don't think we'll solve every one of these goals immediately," said James Guerts, the head of acquisition for the Special Operations Command. "But we want to always be out ahead of technology."

The key, designers and officials say, is to make a suit that provides better protection than the heavy armored vests and Kevlar helmets that soldiers already wear, without being so bulky that it prevents them from moving in combat.

To make it work, designers need a battery to power the exoskeleton, the communications gear and the data stream. Too big a battery weighs down the suit; too small and it could run out of juice. In the movies, Iron Man is powered by a fictional "arc reactor" that sometimes falters and sends him tumbling to Earth.

"The Iron Man movies got it right: Power is the Achilles' heel with all these devices," said Russ Angold, founder of Ekso Bionics.

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